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2012 Year in Review: Chief Innovation Officers

A look at the innovation trend that grew and took shape during 2012.

Editor's note: Over the course of a year, we write hundreds of stories covering myriad topics. And at year's end, we attempt to make sense of it all. We looked for trends that had a profound impact this year — and that are likely to be even more influential in the future. We think our choices fit that mold.

In this Web series, we'll look at social media, which is steadily reshaping how agencies deal with the public; big data, which holds new promise for improving government performance; BYOD, cloud computing and software as a service, all of which are challenging long-held assumptions for how agencies acquire and use technology; and the emergence of chief innovation officers, which hints at eventual challenges to traditional organizational structures themselves. We expect these trends, which took root in 2012, to impact our work and world as we move into next year and beyond.

Year in Review Timeline ... continued


Chief Innovation Officers: Are They the Answer?

Typically the term “CIO” in government refers to the chief information officer, but in 2012, a new type of CIO entered the public-sector arena -- the chief innovation officer. Desire to reshape existing IT and business practices is prompting local governments to create innovation officer positions that focus on public-facing responsibilities like community engagement and economic development. The theory behind at least some of this activity is that CIOs have enough on their plates with running day-to-day IT operations, making it challenging for them to focus on innovative projects. In many cases, the innovation officer also has a purview that’s broader than technology, spanning into areas like working with startup companies to stimulate job growth. 

So far, only a handful of chief innovation officers have been appointed across the U.S. Jay Nath was named San Francisco’s chief innovation officer in January. That same month, Ted Smith, the director of innovation for the Louisville Metro Government, was appointed a new position called the chief of economic growth and innovation. Both Nath and Smith work in conjunction with a CIO — Nath working with San Francisco CIO Jon Walton and Smith with Louisville CIO Beth Niblock. 

In Louisville, the division of labor appeared to work well, allowing Smith to focus on projects like Asthmapolis, a city program to use asthma sensors to gage the city’s air quality. By raising money from the private sector, the city was able to distribute 500 asthma sensors, which in the long run is helping tackle a prominent health issue in the city. 

In other cities, the CIO position is being charged more explicitly with innovation responsibilities.  Philadelphia changed the name of its chief technology officer post to chief innovation officer. The city hired former New Jersey CIO Adel Ebeid late last year for the revamped position, which includes responsibility over strategy, implementation, and day-to-day operations of all technology and information services. Similarly, New York City renamed its CIO position the chief information and innovation officer when it hired Rahul N. Merchant for the job in April. 

Though chief innovation officers currently are few and far between, more are expected to be appointed across the nation in 2013. Earlier this year, for instance, funding was approved in Austin, Texas, to create the position, which is expected to be filled sometime next year. Some observers expect chief innovation officers to be in place at most major cities next year.

It remains to be seen whether government’s newest “C-level” post becomes firmly established – but current activity around the post indicates growing demand for innovation in the public sector, regardless of which “CIO” delivers it.

Read more 2012 Year in Review stories